Archive for March, 2012

I will be presenting a paper on Digital Harlem at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee, on April 21.  The paper is part of a session called “The Challenge of Virtual Cities” that also involves Bobby Allen from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Session Abstract:

This session will explore historical analysis using virtual cities, that is, online reconstructions of historical urban spaces.  The presentations will feature projects that use a humanities approach rather than the social science methodology long associated with historical GIS. Whereas the later approach employed proprietary software such as ARC GIS, which aggregates data and opens it to statistical analysis, but cannot easily be disseminated online, a humanities approach uses new web friendly location-based tools such as Google Earth and Google Maps, and Flash software, to map data and generate visualizations and animations, and to query the patterns that are revealed. The shift in approach has brought a change in scale, from aggregates to individuals, posed different questions, and shifted the focus from the descriptive to the explanatory.  Those differences fuel the challenge virtual cities pose to our understanding of urban history.  The presentations will address the ways in which the creation of virtual cities changed how each scholar saw and understood his subject, and how he undertook and disseminated his research.  In this way, it will probe the substance of the spatial turn that has begun to occur in historical scholarship.

The session will feature presentations on three projects, including the first two winners of the American Historical Association’s Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History. Stephen Robertson, of the University of Sydney, will discuss Digital Harlem, a site that maps everyday life in the neighborhood in the 1920s, focusing on places, events and individuals drawn from a range of legal records, newspapers and other archival sources.  Robert Allen, of the University of North Carolina, will discuss Going to the Show and its spin-off, Main Street Carolina, sites which use Sanborn maps and other material from the North Carolina collection to provide a comprehensive picture of movie-going in early-twentieth-century North Carolina, and to provide a platform for projects that gather and map data on the state’s downtowns.

We had hoped to solicit questions in advance, but that feature did not make it into the program.  If you do have questions you think I should address in the presentation, please ask them in the comments.


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I will be presenting a paper entitled “Putting Harlem on the Map” at the Digital Humanities Australasia 2012 conference in Canberra on March 30.


This paper examines Digital Harlem and what it reveals about the kind of place Harlem was in the 1920s. The site employs a database that integrates a diverse range of archival and published material on the basis of geographical location, and connects that material with a detailed map of the neighborhood overlaid on Google Maps, capturing something of the complexity of everyday life.

The site is dynamic, allowing the results of users’ searches for events, places and individuals to be displayed on the map, searches to be limited in various ways, including by date, and different searches to be layered on the same map to allow comparisons and show change over time. Events that occur at a sequence of locations, such as parades, are linked by lines; lines also link the locations of an individual’s activities with their residence. In both cases, the lines convey a sense of how people moved through Harlem and the rest of the city.

The site differs from traditional GIS in employing a qualitative approach, promoting a spatial analysis that highlights the variety of different places that made up the neighborhood, and locating the events and individuals found in 1920s Harlem in the context of those places.

One feature revealed by our analysis of the Digital Harlem is that whites remained a prominent presence in the neighborhood. To be sure, there were a multitude of places within Harlem controlled by blacks, mostly residences, but also churches, fraternal lodges and some dance halls and theatres. But white controlled businesses, public places and visitors are present throughout Harlem, fragmenting the black district in ways obscured by maps that represent the district as a solid, segregated area of black residences, and making Harlem a place of racial contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation.

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